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Oh My God: Modern Cinematic Depictions of the Almighty…

Religion is understandably one of the great cinematic themes.

After all, religion provides a way of making sense of a seemingly chaotic world, of imposing order upon the universe. More than that, it connects into any number of other rich themes, from man’s place in the grand scheme of things to the art of creation. However, religion is understandably a subject that needs to be treated with some delicacy, joining sex and politics on topics to be avoided in dinner table conversation. Of course, there has always been a market for religious subject matter in cinema.

Classic Hollywood produced any number of broad religious epics for public consumption, films like Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments. These stories blended familiar biblical narratives with large-scale spectacle, offering reassuring tales of conventional heroics often anchored in Christian iconography. These biblical epics faded from view towards the end of the sixties; perhaps tellingly, they faded out of view around the same time as that other American creation myth, the western.

However, there remains a market for religious entertainment. The twenty-first century has seen an explosion of smaller Christian-based movie studios producing wholesome narratives couched in religious language and imagery. Films like Saving Christmas or God’s Not Dead are clearly calibrated to appeal to a very particular market instead of a broader audience, akin to specialty cinema like Bollywood. However, entire studios exist to feed this market and provide a solid return on a reasonable budget; just look at Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage.

Nic Cage doesn’t get raptured. It turns out God has seen the remake of The Wicker Man.

While these specialty studios are offering a much more conventional and old-school depiction of divinity and religion, there is something interesting happening in more mainstream cinema. The twenty-first century has seen a number of high-profile creators grappling with strong religious themes in explicitly Christian terms, and – in doing so – offering a number of provocative and subversive interpretations of God.

Note: the post will include spoilers for mother! If you have not seen the film yet, proceed at your own peril.

Traditionally, even big budget epics tended to shy away from explicit portrayals of God the Almighty. The Ten Commandments notably used Charleton Heston’s voice in its burning bush scene, and a variety of unidentified voices at other points in the narrative. Although there are obvious exceptions like King of Kings, even films focusing on Jesus Christ tended to keep the character at the edge of the narrative. Biblical episodes like Ben Hur and The Robe tended to unfold tangential to Jesus rather than focusing on the character.

Indeed, Hail, Caesar! spoofed this paradoxical approach adopted by classic Hollywood, the desire to tell moving biblical stories while keeping the “divine presence” just out of focus. There was a sense that religious ideas like God the Almighty and Jesus Christ were almost too big to be contained on the silver screen, even in CinemaScope (The Robe) or VistaVision (The Ten Commandments). These were concepts that deserved to be treated tactfully and with respect, acknowledged without being interrogated. They were not characters for Hollywood narratives, but forces at work within them.

Divine Presence to be shot.

Even the decision to focus on Jesus Christ in King of Kings was controversial. As the Reverend James H. Kepler observed in a contemporary issue of Modern Screen:

Has an ordinary human being the right to portray Jesus Christ? In the past moviemakers have avoided showing the face of Christ on screen. But, in King of Kings, the producers are going to show His face and body.

And actor Jeffrey Hunter is taking the biggest risk of his life. Many people may say, “How dare he, a divorced man, a man not only born with the taint of original sin but also a man who has led a man’s like – how dare he portray the Son of God?”

To be fair, standards have been relaxed then. George Burns could play God in Oh God!, while Morgan Freeman played the role in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty.

Morgan Freeman took a considerable casting downgrade to appear in Ben Hur.

It should be noted that modern Hollywood has made some small effort to court religious audiences. Mel Gibson is undeniably a religious film maker, as demonstrated by the massive success of The Passion of the Christ. Although undoubtedly bloodier than earlier biblical epics, perhaps the cinematic equivalent of a so-called “Hell House”, the film struck a chord with Christian audiences. Gibson’s subsequent work has very strong religious themes; the closing scene of Apocalypto, or the opening act of Hacksaw Ridge.

Indeed, Paramount rather clumsily attempted to appeal to this audience with their disastrous remake of Ben Hur. In some respects, Ben Hur feels like an update of those respectful fifties epics for the modern age, treating Jesus Christ as something akin a biblical Nick Fury; he intrudes into the narrative with little warning, the camera’s shifting towards him as he makes in-jokes and references for the devotees in the audience. Ben Hur is awful, but it is a much straighter and more conventional biblical epic than some of the other mainstream releases.

There is a reason that these religious figures are treated with such veneration and respect within mainstream cinema. The United States is still a very strongly religious country. Even if church attendance is trending downwards, religious groups remain a very vocal and very active political constituency. Any film that offends those viewers will find itself subject to protests and complaints, often aggressively. Martin Scorsese famously skipped the premiere of The Last Temptation of Christ because he was worried about his safety. Studios can be reluctant to antagonise that lobby.

However, recent years have seen big budget studio films grapple with the idea of God in an increasingly confrontational manner. At the end of the nineties, movies like Dogma and Stigmata adopted a somewhat confrontational approach towards the Catholic Church, although they seemed to target the institution itself more than the underlying belief. In fact, Dogma is ultimately quite sympathetic in its portrayal of the inhabitants of heaven, whether Alan Rickman as a put-upon messenger or Alanis Morissette as a silent interpretation of God.

However, it seems as though cinematic treatments of religion have grown increasingly bold, particular with regards to the subject of such belief. The recent films of directors like Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott have grappled with the notion of an Old Testament God that stands in stark contrast to the depictions seen in old school swords and sandals biblical efforts. While films like God’s Not Dead and Saving Christmas still offer that wholesome approach to the subject matter, Aronofsky and Scott have grappled with a deconstructed examination of the idea of God.

Ridley Scott’s approach to God the Almighty in Exodus: Gods and Kings is interesting, in large part because the film superficially resembles the biblical epics of old. It is a sprawling epic, a two-and-a-half hour adaptation of the life of Moses that explores the character’s life in forensic detail. Although rendered through computer-generated imagery rather than through production design, Exodus captures much of the same sense of grandeur associated with those old Hollywood adaptations.

(It could also be argued that Exodus‘ use of primarily Caucasian actors like Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver to play these iconic middle-eastern characters is also a throwback to old-school Hollywood storytelling. After all, with his blue eyes and blonde hair, Charleton Heston was never particularly convincing as a denizen of Jerusalem, even if he was much more comfortable to fifties audiences than a more accurate depiction would have been. Of course, it is not as if modern Hollywood has moved past whitewashing.)

However, as much as Exodus might superficially resemble a classical biblical epic, down to its structure and its set pieces, the film is very clearly pitched as something closer to a science-fiction horror film. The movie accepts the idea of an Old Testament God head-on, but it follows the core ideas of the classic Exodus story through to their logical conclusions. Exodus reacts to God with awe, in the original sense of the word, both enticed by the power and unsettled by the implications.

Although very clumsy in its execution, Exodus plays almost as a deconstruction of the biblical myth. The movie presents God the Almighty as something close to a Lovecraftian nightmare, an entity with a very clear will and a great deal of power, but whose influence ripples across the world in ways that challenge mankind’s understanding of how the universe should work. Moses is not so much devoted as terrified, reacting with horror as God unleashes what can only be described as a sustained terrorist campaign upon Ancient Egypt to liberate the Israelites.

Exodus is unsettled by God, as well it should be. The film treats the wonders in the original story as acts of divine warfare. The plagues look almost like biological and chemical warfare unleashed upon an unsuspecting population, with Scott frequently depicting these sequences in a manner akin to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Alien: Covenant solidifies this comparison. When David unleashes a biological weapon against the Builders in an extended flashback, it looks a lot like the divine wrath unleashed in Exodus.

To be fair, it also clearly framed to evoke the imagery of dropping the atomic bomb. These two influences are not necessarily coincidental.

Exodus takes its source material at face value. God unleashed plagues upon Ancient Egypt, crippling its food supplies and starving its citizens. When these plagues did not work, God enacted a campaign of mass murder, brutally slaying all the first born children in the kingdom. To be clear, the narrative and the audience are sympathetic to the Israelites. The Ancient Egyptians built their kingdom upon the back of slave labour, and refused every opportunity (and ignored every warning) to release that population. The Ancient Egyptians are in no way innocent.

At the same time, Exodus understands the sheer horror of this act. It is mass murder on a scale that is impossible to contemplate, the brutal murder of innocents for the crimes of their parents; more than that, for the crimes of the people who ruled the kingdom in which their parents lived. This is a war crime, on a scale that would is almost impossible to image. There were any number of other ways that an all-powerful God could have freed the Israelites without recourse to such brutality. What kind of a God would choose this option, with all of the options available?

In some ways, Exodus is perhaps the most overt expression of a broader ambivalence towards the very idea of God that echoes through Ridley Scott’s more recent filmography. Both Prometheus and Covenant are meditations upon faith and belief. Prometheus introduces the character of Shaw flashing back to a childhood memory of discussing religion and the afterlife with her father, while Covenant establishes Oram’s religious faith as his defining attribute. Not only do these films lean heavily on religious imagery, they also incorporate heavy religious themes.

Although couched in science-fiction trappings, both Prometheus and Covenant are meditations upon religious faith. Prometheus is a story about a human crew embarking upon a mission to “meet [their] maker”, to find the alien species responsible for seeding life on earth in a ritual depicted in the opening moments of the film. On arriving, the crew are forced to confront the reality that these divine authorities do not care for their questions or their inquiries. Prometheus suggests a version of God that is so alien as to be openly indifferent (if not actively hostile) to His creation.

Although Prometheus and Covenant were marketed as a part of the larger Alien mythos, Ridley Scott approached them from a more theological mindset:

We’re diving into a universe about God. But it’s not about God, or Allah, or anything like that. Because I’m an agnostic, I believe there is something out there, but I don’t think it’s a tall man with a big beard and a staff, that’s ridiculous. Sorry, I’m going to get struck by lightning or something. But I believe there is something, at least in this galaxy, along with maybe a few other entities that are out of the same evolution, maybe ahead of us. We could easily be neanderthals.

Prometheus and Covenent suggest the relationship between God and man is abusive and neglectful, Prometheus explicitly likening it to the relationship between humans and androids.

“What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.”
“Why do you think your people made me?”
“We made you because we could.”
“Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”
“I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.”

Prometheus often feels like a reflection on the ego inherent in religion, in the self-importance of asserting God’s interest in humanity. Prometheus focuses on characters who assume that God might have some profound answers to the grand mysteries of human nature, who might provide some explanation or purpose. However, Prometheus suggests that such belief is tantamount to arrogance, a way of proclaiming mankind’s importance in the grand scheme of things by insisting on a special relationship with this divine authority.

Prometheus brutally undercuts this arrogance. The Builders have no interest in engaging with humanity. The awakened survivor initially ignores the human visitors until they become a threat. It is suggested that the Builders are planning to launch a biological attack upon Earth, to wipe the metaphorical slate clean. Prometheus refuses to offer an explanation for this attempted, because that would ultimately validate the crew’s inflated sense of importance. It is possible that mankind were a disappointment to their creators, but it is just as possible that the Builders need the space to start over.

Covenant is less overt in its religious iconography, but it touches on the same themes. Notably, the Builder society that appears (briefly) in Covenant looks very similar to Ancient Egypt as it appeared in Exodus, fashioning the movies into a loose religious trilogy. However, Covenant ties back into the central theme of divine indifference. The xenomorph at the heart of the Alien franchise is the product of the same mind and the same process that led to humanity. There is nothing special or divine about mankind, and the indifference of God is reflected in the cruelty of His creation.

Direct Darren Aronofsky released Noah in 2014, the same year that Ridley Scott released Exodus. There is considerable thematic overlap. Both are biblical epics adapted from the Old Testament, released by major studios and intended for a wide audience. If anything, Noah was even more subversive than Exodus. At least Exodus resembled those old-school biblical epics in terms of scale and style, with its depiction of grand halls and pyramids, its sprawling crowd scenes, its eloquent production design. Noah is a much weirder film.

Nevertheless, Aronofsky’s surreal adaptation shares a lot of the same key themes and ideas as Scott’s more conventional epic. Noah takes a familiar story, but carefully shifts the emphasis within it. The movie reacts with awe to the very idea of God. The biblical flood is a story that is repeated with such frequency and such devotion that many people have never truly contemplated the horror inherent in the premise. The traditional Noah narrative puts an emphasis on what God spared rather than what God destroyed, but Noah finds room for both.

As with the portrayal of the biblical plagues in Exodus, the flood in Noah is treated as something horrific and awe-inspiring. It is not the validation of religious faith, instead presented as murder on a massive scale. Fists bang on the outside of the ark, begging to be spared. Bodies scramble from shelter from the rising waters, climbing over one another. Even after the initial flood, the sound of death linger in the air, the writhing and moaning of those who survived the initial cataclysm. The title character even leaves a young woman to die, caught in an animal trap; it is not a subtle metaphor.

Noah focuses on the lives lost in the flood, the suffering inflicted upon mankind, the horrors brought to bear. As with Exodus, there is some sense of confusion and awe at this demonstration of power. If God is capable of anything, then what does it say that God chooses to enforce His will through these acts of mass murder? Neither Noah nor Exodus are explicitly revisionist takes on the Old Testament, instead opting to to take the text at face value and trying to explore the implications of the events depicted therein.

Aronofsky returns to some of these themes in mother! In mother!, Aronofsky reduces the bible to an intimate familial psychodrama, presenting God as an egomaniacal writer and the Earth as his confused and disoriented companion. mother! runs through a collection of classic biblical stories, framed in an abstract manner. mother! imagines creation as a house; the garden of Eden as a writer’s study, heaven as a beautiful skylight, hell as a furnace raging in the basement. The house itself is the world, a divine gift opened to an uncaring (and often destructive) mankind.

mother! runs through a veritable smorgasbord of biblical fables, its true purpose and intent becoming increasingly clear over its two-hour run-time as its allegories become increasingly literal. There is devoted Adam, followed by the tempress Eve. The apple becomes a broken heart. Cain and Abel fight over a trust, with Abel dying on the way to the hospital and Cain wandering in the wilderness for eternity marked by his misdeed. There isn’t quite a flood, but there is a burst water pipe.

Things get progressively more literal as mother! transitions to the New Testament, with the writer trying desperately to follow up the success of the original book. One of Aronofsky’s more interesting ideas is the decision to suggest that the New Testament might be more destructive than its predecessor, tying the book to war and oppression and violence on a truly epic scale; mother! rushes to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, but it touches on everything from the crusades to the oppression of women to the horror inherent in transubstantiation.

At the heart of all this, mother! casts Javier Bardem as a very fragile and very insecure iteration of the divine. mother! suggests that God is an entity that exists to be worshipped, that feeds off the devotion of His followers, and is unwilling to call out the violence and bloodshed done in His name. mother! is essentially the bible from the perspective of planet Earth, God’s loving companion and his creation, who watches in horror as God invites strangers into their home and refuses to do anything to control them because He wants to be worshipped.

In some respects, these newer films focused on interrogating divinity and the very idea of a Christian God reflect on how far pop culture has evolved in the past half-century. None of these films are small releases or curated selections. There is no sense of taboo about them, none of the controversy that surrounded releases like Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, a film that was a lot more careful in its depiction of Jesus Christ and God the Almighty than any of these more recent releases. There is something remarkable in the fact that these films can get produced and released.

However, it is interesting to wonder why this sudden shift has taken place, why modern films seem so particularly engaged with deconstructing the traditional depiction of the Judaeo-Christian God as a loving and devote father in favour of something altogether more abstract and horrifying. It seems likely that shifting attitudes towards religion might have played a significant part. For most of the existence of the United States, religious faith has been something that held the nation together. Although nominally a secular country, the United States traces its roots to religious immigrants.

The Church has long been the cornerstone of American values. God is all over the imagery and iconography of the United States, right down to the dollar bills that represent the cornerstone of American liberal capitalism. Various legal oaths are sworn not only before the court itself, but under the watchful eye of God the Almighty. All Presidents, with the exceptions of Theodore Roosevelt, John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce, swore their oaths of office on a bible. An atheist presidential candidate would likely still face an uphill battle with the electorate.

Even during the nineties, when church attendance was in decline and the nation was going through a spiritual crisis, there was a sense that the United States was still a deeply spiritual and religious nation. Even atheists and agnostics seemed fascinated by the ritual and devotion of faith, as demonstrated repeatedly in shows like The X-Files or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There was a sense that religious faith was appealing, even to those who did not share in it. Those who did not believe still wanted to believe.

The twenty-first century seems to have changed this dynamic somewhat. In many ways, the long nineties ended with the attack upon the World Trade Centre on 9/11. The act was typically framed in terms of religion, a suicide attack by a ground of fundamentalists who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of what they deemed to be a holy war. Although other parts of the globe had long been home to sectarian and religious strife, the United States seemed shocked by the damage inflicted by these extremists.

The reaction was striking. Although President George W. Bush spoke out in support of the Muslim Community in the United States, Islamophobia increased significantly in the wake of the attack. It seems reasonable to observe that Islamophobia was a major factor in the most recent elections in the United States, with Donald Trump founding his campaign on the thinly-veiled racism and Islamophobia of “birtherism” and building his campaign around a so-called “Muslim Ban.”

It is interesting to wonder whether those attacks (and the increased attention paid to terrorism framed in terms of religious extremism in the years that followed) also played into the religious anxiety evident in films like Exodus and Noah, the fear of what would be entailed by truly unquestioning devotion to a vengeful deity. The recent films of Aronofsky and Scott present versions of God that are horrifying in their power and their brutality, entities that do not care for the suffering inflicted in their name; great and terrible.

Perhaps this fascination also reflects a growing cynicism about creation myths in general. The past couple of decades have seen a resurgence in deconstructionist westerns, films using the language of the western to construct horror stories. Sometimes these horrors are existential, as with The Revenant and Bone Tomahawk. Sometimes these horrors are tied to the nation’s original sin, as in Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight. Increasingly, the western is apocalyptic in tone, as in Logan, Wind River or War for the Planet of the Apes.

It is worth noting that the golden age of the biblical epic overlapped significantly with the golden age of the western. It makes sense that the two genres should be linked in their deconstruction and interrogation, that the same critical eye cast over the western might cast its gaze towards the conventions of the biblical epic. Modern westerns tend to embrace the storytelling sensibilities of the genre while throwing many of the underlying assumptions into doubt; it is worth noting just how many reject the warm browns of the desert plains for the cool whites of an icy tundra.

Films like Exodus and Noah are arguably do something similar with the conventions of the biblical epic. They are recognisable as Old Testament stories terms of structure and narrative. Even mother! is recognisable as a parable about a book of parables. However, they upend many of the underlying assumptions of the narrative. What if the films assumed that the audience was automatically on the side of God in these narratives? What if the viewers were asked to look at these events from an outside perspective, to treat these horrors as we would any other example of human suffering on this scale?

Perhaps this is simply an extension of a broader cynicism about the foundational myths that have permeated the popular consciousness, that have been accepted at face value for decades – if not centuries. Perhaps the deconstruction of the western is an interrogation of a particularly American brand of mythology and religion, an exploration of a fundamental belief that comes close to being its own national religion. Perhaps films like Exodus and Noah are doing something similar with religion itself, which could be considered its own foundational mythological framework.

Of course, it’s also simply possible that these themes are of interest to Scott and Aronofsky at this point in their lives. After all, Aronofsky’s earlier work deals with religious themes; Pi features a subplot about finding the name of God in a mathematical string, while The Fountain touches on the myth of Eden. For all that Aronofsky tends to position Noah and mother! in strictly environmental terms, the subject matter clearly holds personal interest to him. This makes sense. Religion is one of those great big existential questions that exerts an incredible gravity.

Indeed, both Scott and Aronofsky tend to emphasise the provocative nature of their interpretations of religion. Undoubtedly making the investors somewhat nervous, Aronofsky boasted that Noah was “the least biblical biblical film ever made.” While finishing up work on Prometheus and before commencing production on Exodus, Scott remarked that he considered evil to be “the biggest source of evil” at work in the world. It was a bold statement. Perhaps Aronofsky and Scott are simply trying to be provocative, trying to attack that most sacred of calves.

Whatever the reason, it is interesting to see these provocative approaches to religion framed in what are clearly intended to be relatively high-profile releases with some semblance of broad appeal. Noah was arguably intended to position Aronofsky as a figure similar to Christopher Nolan, an independent film maker who could make bankable and daring blockbusters. Ridley Scott’s films operate with a great deal of studio support, to the point that Covenant could be read as an extended metaphor for trying to tell a personal and interesting story inside a studio framework.

While these films are certainly among the most polarising and divisive entries in Aronofsky or Scott’s personal canons, there is something to be said for mass-market religious blockbusters that dare to interrogate and to explore religious imagery and iconography from an unconventional perspective. It is something that would have been very difficult to do with any studio twenty years earlier, and impossible to accomplish twenty years before that. These experiments do not always work, but they never less than compelling.

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